Misery Loves . . . More Misery

trafficMatt Yglesias points to David Brooks’ assertion that “The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting” in order to tout a congestion pricing tax.

Brooks doesn’t pivot from this into any real policy specifics. But the upshot of the commuting point is very clear—we should charge people a fee to drive on crowded roads at peak hours. If you look at it in strict dollars and cents terms, the policy looks great. A relatively small fee can eliminate large economic losses due to congestion, and then the fee can finance useful public services or reductions in other taxes. But when you add in the fact that commuting time makes people miserable, you can see that the social gains from congestion pricing in our most-trafficked metro areas would be extremely large.

If there’s anything people hate more than being stuck in traffic it’s being stuck in traffic while paying higher taxes for the privilege.  (Having been stuck in traffic jams on expensive toll roads, I can offer anecdotal support for something that’s intuitively true.)

Now, obviously, the point of congestion pricing is to cajole people to shift their driving habits and ease said congestion.  But the reality is that most people don’t have the flexibility to do much about their commuting time.

If you’re poor enough that, say, a $5 tax will dissuade you from driving during the rush hour, then you’re likely just going to wind up staying at the office later.  Without additional compensation, most likely.  And, no, you can’t go out an have a beer or something because it would cost you decidedly more than $5.

Ah, you say, you could take public transportation!  But, presumably, people who can’t afford a congestion pricing tax would already be doing that, since it’s almost certainly far cheaper than driving and parking.

Well, how about flex scheduling?  Some of us have the luxury.  Most people don’t.  Especially low wage workers in the service industry, who can’t exactly telecommute.

UPDATE: To be clear, I don’t have strong views one way or the other on the overall merits of congestion pricing.  My gut instinct is that all such schemes basically stick it to people who can’t afford to pay for convenience rather than addressing larger communal problems but that’s sometimes inevitable.  I just object to the idea that the way to make something less miserable is to slap a tax on it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. LauraNo says:

    You don’t foresee companies changing their start/ quit times to accommodate their low-paid employees? I’m imagining that having a company-owned transmitter will become a perk for higher end employees, which the company will want to save money on. A lot of people who could be availing themselves of public transportation just aren’t, this might finally persuade them. I use a toll road and I can tell you that when I’m stuck in traffic, the thought doesn’t enter my mind that I’m being ‘taxed’ for the privilege. I am just frustrated. I take it you’re a conservative because this sounds just like what conservatives always do: object for the sake of objecting. Have you got a better idea?

  2. Ben says:

    You don’t foresee companies changing their start/ quit times to accommodate their low-paid employees?

    I don’t foresee companies doing jack dung to accommodate their employees. Since none of the companies I’ve ever worked for have given a flying cowpie about my inconveniences, time-based or monetary.

    A lot of people who could be availing themselves of public transportation just aren’t, this might finally persuade them.

    As someone who endured the horror of taking a commuter train for a previous job, I can offer some decent data points. First of all, the schedule is woefully inadequate (this is the Boston rail system I’m talking about), 1 train an hour is not very satisfactory, leading to a lot of wasted time waiting in the rail station for the next train. Secondly, it is overcrowded. This may be a purely American concept, but I do NOT want to spend an hour or more of my day crammed into a seat with a random person. I tolerate it for 2 minutes on the subway. That’s the extent of my tolerance.

  3. john personna says:

    There are some intertwined issues here, but one thing I’d suggest you ponder is who is “poor” if/how they get to work.

    My understanding is that the poor (with jobs) do use public transportation, and I think that form is under-supported for them.

    Some do try to redefine the middle-classes as the “working poor” in order to get them some benefit. In this case, what are you going to do, save them the $5 tax and trigger a $5,000,000,000,000 highway expansion effort?

  4. john personna says:

    BTW, I think the question “who is poor” is still shaking out with respect to globalization and free trade. One possibility (if we don’t want to “welfare” everyone up to middle class) is that we may have to accept world-class poor in our own country.

    It is a possible outcome of globalized wages.

    (I think free trade and a minimum wage are at odds, but with or without minimum wage, middle class factory jobs are destined to disappear.)

  5. William d'Inger says:

    Have you got a better idea?

    The basic concept of freedom is choice, i.e., (in this case) the right of an individual to choose whether to take public or private transportation without government interference. The congestion tax is simply government forcing people to use a transportation mode they wouldn’t normally chose for themselves. It’s a typical tactic of (mostly liberal) Big Nanny types when they figure they can’t get away with outright dictating the mode by fiat.

  6. john personna says:

    William,

    The basic concept of freedom is choice, i.e., (in this case) the right of an individual to choose whether to take public or private transportation without government interference.

    The problem is that there is not a free market choice to be had here. Public transportation is of course subsidized. Roads are subsidized (both by the gas tax and concessions from builders). If you take a helicopter to work you’ve got to use the air traffic control system.

    What this really is, is people wanting to fund their favorite form of government subsidized transportation.

    (I’m actually fine with there being buses, cars, and helicopters, in balance. The balance is the question.)

    It’s a typical tactic of (mostly liberal) Big Nanny types when they figure they can’t get away with outright dictating the mode by fiat.

    Wake me when you can find a route from your home to work on nothing but private toll roads, or for that matter pubic roads funded purely by use fees and not by general state construction bonds.

  7. Free people can do what I did and leave the DC area, or any other congested area. Try it, you just might find the rat race isn’t worth it and the cost of living more than makes up for the lower salaries, not to mention more stable communities, nicer neighbors, more time for the family, cheaper transportation costs, etc.

    Anyone notice how more taxes is Ezra Klein’s or Young Mr. Yglesias’ first response to almost every problem.

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    Congestion pricing schemes are designed primarily to extort money to fund pet projects. Commuters are already paying a price through lost time so the idea that charging a fee will change behavior is ridiculous. It’s all about transferring money into bureaucrats hands.

  9. john personna says:

    Out here in California there have been studies that say congestion charges would be the lower tax of the alternatives. (We keep building wider freeways, but people add cars even faster.)

    dictating the mode by fiat

    BTW, if that was a Fiat joke, good one.

  10. yetanotherjohn says:

    James,

    You are looking at this upsode down. You are right that a congestion tax will hurt the working poor the hardest. But what if you could tax those who could afford it.

    Houston has an answer to this with their recent freeway expansion. They went from 3 lanes plus a high occupancy lane to four lanes plus a HOV/toll lane. If you carpool, you get to use the HOV/toll lanes free during rush hours (at 3 places you have to pick a lane to either pay toll or have 2+ in car). So the congestion tax gets turned into a perk of faster travel for those who can afford it or who car pool.

    The down side is the question if you would be better off with 7 lanes (the shoulder between normal and HOV/toll could be a 7th lane) or the 4+2 concept. The toll is also supposed to pay for the expansion, so even if 7 was more efficient, it probably wouldn’t have happened.

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    It seems to me that if we charge money to use subsidized public transportation to help offset costs at the expense of those who actually use the service, it only makes sense to do the same thing for highways. It’s not a “tax” — it’s a fee for use.

  12. john personna says:

    Re. your update James, sure question new taxes, but don’t let that blind you to when a tax might be the lightest intrusion.

    One thing that comes to mind here are the Eminent Domain discussions, and how terrible conservatives feel about government taking properties for freeway expansion. Well, I could see that it could come down to congestion tax, or Eminent Domain, in some situations.

    This beyond the obvious, incredible, size of states highway building “machines” and how they influence politics. Any government program once enacted grows continuously? Does that fit the highway-legislative complex at all?

    The federal gasoline tax hasn’t changed since 1993, and that 18.4 cents is no longer filling Uncle Sam’s tank.

    A host of forces, including runaway construction costs and reduced driving, have depleted the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for much of the road work that keeps the nation in gear.

    The fund needed an $8 billion emergency transfer from the government’s general fund last year, and is projected to run out of money this year.

    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09025/944323-85.stm

  13. john personna says:

    more on the hope that gas taxes are covering costs, from Texas:

    Applying this methodology, revealed that no road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees. For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes. That gives a tax gap ratio of .16, which means that the real gas tax rate people would need to pay on this segment of road to completely pay for it would be $2.22 per gallon.

  14. floyd says:

    “”Then the fee can finance useful public services or reductions in other taxes.””
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    Now, I don’t care WHO you are … That there’s funny!
    If you want it really entertaining, CHARGE by the HOUR to use the congested roadways!LOL!

  15. Joe R. says:

    Yglesias: “If you look at it in strict dollars and cents terms, the policy looks great.”

    Sure, if you’re on the receiving end of the money. The givers might have a different idea about it. Such liberal compassion.

  16. Raoul says:

    Recently I used public transportation to commute from my house for the first time. The convenience, comfort and cost surprised me. I wish I had done my research years earlier. Here is an idea: every place of employment should give a non-transferable public transportation voucher for a week (or a month) to all commuters. I think the results would surprise many when commuters they do not need to stuck in traffic. As to congestion pricing- if roads, like on-street parking, are a limited resource, logic dictates that it be priced accordingly.